There was a time not so long ago when Andy Mulumba would have felt very uncomfortable putting on a suit and telling his story to an auditorium filled with strangers.
Six years earlier, the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker had left Montreal — knowing very little English — to accept a football scholarship at Eastern Michigan University.
But here he was, in front of a sea of West Bend high school students, thanking them for raising $10,000 on behalf of RAISE Hope for Congo. The money will be used to build shelters in his native country to treat women for injuries sustained because of war or rape.
“It’s a growing process,” Mulumba said about speaking engagements. “But if you can talk and help people out, why not do it? If you know it’s going to touch someone, I’ll do it.”
Mulumba was awakened to this platform after making it to the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2013. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound linebacker kept his head down in camp, did what was asked and eventually made the team with little fanfare.
What few realized was that Mulumba was the only native of the Democratic Republic of Congo to play in the NFL that season. His story was unlike anyone else’s in the league, but Mulumba preferred to leave the turbulent 12 years he spent in Congo in the past.
That all changed the moment he came across Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the St. Norbert College cafeteria one day during training camp. Rodgers was wearing a gray T-shirt with an orange exclamation point in the center. On the back was Africa with a highlighted outline of Congo.
“That’s my country,” Mulumba told Rodgers. “Why do you have my country on the back of your shirt?”
Rodgers explained it was for the Enough Project and the RAISE Hope for Congo initiative, which advocates for the human rights of Congolese citizens and promotes awareness about the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo.
Rodgers was drawn to the cause because of his friendship with actress Emmanuelle Chriqui. She opened his eyes to how minerals such tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are mined in Congo to fund the ongoing conflict. Not to mention the sexual violence committed against Congolese women and girls.
In 2012, Congo ranked lowest on the United Nations Human Development Index despite being rich in many of the minerals found in smartphones. A CNN Money report that same year stated Congo averages the world’s worst per capita gross domestic product ($231 per individual).
Mulumba was educated on the situation, but didn’t know how to help until the conversation with Rodgers.
“A lot of times people have the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to causes like this,” Rodgers said last week. “If I can’t feel it or see it, it doesn’t really have an impact. But when you bring it all back around and let them know, ‘Well, you actually do.’ ”
The cause hits close to home for Mulumba. Born in war-torn Zaire — later re-named Congo after Laurent Kabila’s takeover in 1997 — his family relocated to Montreal when he was 12 years old. First, his mother and three youngest siblings. Then, Mulumba and the two eldest followed after living eight months with an uncle.
The move nearly broke the family, but it had to be done. Government turmoil, corruption and an endless cycle of war and disease has resulted in the death of roughly 5.4 million people since 1996, according to a calculation by the International Rescue Committee.
Mulumba says his family’s situation wasn’t as dire as some, but it was nerve-wracking. It remained a constant struggle even after they immigrated to North America. While his father, Martin, finished his Ph.D. at Auburn, his mother, Madeleine, did whatever she could to provide for Mulumba and his five siblings.
The family lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Montreal. His mother couldn’t immediately get a work permit, so she took on any side job she could find to support the family in the interim.
“Basically, all the money was spent on getting us to come to Canada,” Mulumba said. “From there, it was a hustle every day. It was a grind to survive. It was a day-by-day thing. We couldn’t really plan on what we could eat in a couple days. It was a day-by-day plan.”
Mulumba’s parents moved the family to Montreal for safety, but also with the hope of a good education and future. His father found work with the United Nations and the World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide, and the family finally started to find some normalcy.
Mulumba, who played soccer growing up, switched to football in 10th grade at the suggestion of friends. One of the stories he likes to tell students today is the rough start he got off to in high school. He struggled to balance his social life and the classroom. His grades weren’t cutting it.
That’s when Mulumba heard a few of his football teammates discussing how they could get a scholarship to play football in college. The idea was appealing to Mulumba, whose parents already were putting two kids through college.
Soon, Mulumba would be joining them with three more kids to follow.
“It came to a point where my sister was already in college. My brother was going to college and I was about to go to college,” Mulumba said. “They didn’t have scholarships and all these costs were going to be a lot for my parents. At one point, I got to realize I can use this football thing to try to get a scholarship.”
Mulumba never expected that opportunity to be in the United States. When Eastern Michigan hired a new coaching staff, the Eagles brought in former Montreal Alouettes linebackers coach Casey Creehan to coach their defensive line.
Creehan saw Mulumba play at Vieux Montreal High School and offered him a scholarship to join him. The school’s campus in Ypsilanti, Mich., was an entirely different world. Quiet at first, Mulumba slowly started to blend in after adding English as his fourth language.
Mulumba played in 48 games with 31 starts at defensive end, but more importantly earned a degree in business management. All of his siblings are either graduated from college or currently attending.
“I think that took a toll away from my parents to not pay anything for me for four years,” Mulumba said. “That’s one thing I was kind of proud of. It took a lot out of me, but I’m glad they didn’t have to pay anything for me and just save that money and pay for my brothers or younger siblings. That’s when I realized I could use this football thing and try to make something out of it.”
The torn anterior cruciate ligament was a blessing and a curse.
The injury, sustained in Week 2 of the 2014 season, halted Mulumba’s career in its tracks, stopping all of his momentum he had built during a rookie season in which he had 30 tackles and a sack in 14 games.
On the other hand, it gave Mulumba a chance to sit back and see the big picture. He took a break from his rehab to travel home to Canada and spend Christmas with his parents and siblings. It was the first time the entire family had been in the same place at the same time in six years.
In January, his parents returned to the Congo where his older brother is also working on a personal project. His father is doing what he loves and his mother finally is relaxing. It’s their hope to someday retire there.
Mulumba typically sees his father once a year — sometimes twice if he’s lucky. Still, their bond has never been stronger. He looks up to his father for how he was able to balance the responsibilities of his family with a career centered on helping people. It motivates him to do the same someday.
“When I was a kid, I was telling myself it’s something I want to do,” Mulumba said. “I want to help the world in any way possible. It’s a different path for me than my dad took. I’m using my player platform to try to do the same type of work. I guess I’m trying to accomplish what he did in another way.
“Being the voice — I never really thought of it that way — but any way that can help people I’ll take it. Anyway my voice would be heard somewhere.”
His journey started when he accompanied Rodgers and Chriqui to a rally for RAISE Hope for Congo on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison in 2013. He was touched by the number of people who turned out for the event and the exuberance they showed for the cause.
The experience was “eye-opening” for Mulumba, who then dove headfirst into the organization’s efforts. He inhaled every article he could find on the Enough Project website and inquired about how he could help.
His opportunities are limited by the football season, but Mulumba has started doing speaking engagements to shed light on the organization’s efforts. He wrote an essay on the RAISE Hope for Congo website and tweets as much as he can about new Enough Project developments.
In July, Mulumba even held an event in Montreal.
“Andy is a great guy and he has a big personality,” Rodgers said. “Sometimes he’s a little soft-spoken, but once you get to know him he’s a very engaging person. I think he realizes the platform he’s given through football, he can really make a difference. It’s fun to watch him kind of step into that role and take a bigger leadership role in the organization.”
It’s always been Mulumba’s dream to meet 18-year NBA center Dikembe Mutombo, a native of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose foundation has built hospitals and schools to improve health, education and quality of life for the people of Congo.
There have been talks about possibly partnering with the Enough Project to get a collection of Congolese NBA, MLB and NFL players together for a benefit in the near future. If that would ever happen, Mulumba doesn’t know what he would say.
“I looked up to him since I was a kid,” Mulumba said. “I heard about what he did and being able to be maybe not in the same position as him because he was big-time in the NBA, but just try to do the same type of work. I know what he did in Congo. He built a hospital. I want to do that.
“Hopefully, the day I meet him I’ll be able to let him know what I think of him and what he has been able to do for me.”
It’s still not easy to talk about.
Mulumba witnessed a lot in the Congo and most of his experiences remain locked in his memory. He’s not trying to be difficult. He’s not surly about it. It’s just uncomfortable to discuss it.
But Mulumba tries the best he can. He knows the only way people will understand the situation in the Congo is to bring a first-person perspective. As Rodgers reiterates, the problems with the use of child soldiers, sexual violence and decimation of villages still are prevalent.
People can’t look out their backyard in Green Bay and see the problem. You have to show it to them. You have to reach out and teach them. The more appearances he does, the more comfort Mulumba gains.
“It’s something I want to leave behind,” Mulumba said of his time in the Congo. “I know it happened. There’s a lot that happened, but at the same time we had a good time of my 12 years that I lived there.
“You want to focus on what you have and what you’re going to have to do the next couple years. It wasn’t really an unbearable experience for any of us, but it was hard. It was hard. It was a complicated situation at times. You saw the effort my parents put in to try to get the family safe.”
Mulumba’s parents used to follow his games on the Internet in Canada, but now mainly rely on statistics to see how their son performed. If they caught the box score from Thursday night’s game in New England, they’d see Mulumba is off to a good start to his third NFL season — three tackles and a half sack.
Based in Rome, his father’s job with the World Food Programme has taken him all over the continent of Africa. Now, he’s finally home and catching up on lost time with his wife. Mulumba plans to return to the Congo after this season on behalf of the Enough Project.
He’s returned to Africa on a few occasions, but it’ll be his first trip back to his native country, where Mulumba still has first cousins, uncles and aunts that he hasn’t seen in 13 years.
Until then, he plans to continue the Enough Project’s mission of promoting awareness to companies that produce products based out of conflict minerals and educating the people who use them.
“It allows people to see us as more than just football players,” Rodgers said. “It’s a huge moment for those people to learn more about us, where we’re from and what’s important to us, and realize that they can make a difference.
“You can actually make a difference living in Racine, Wisconsin, or living in Kenosha or living in Green Bay. That’s the cool thing that Andy and this organization are doing.”
Mulumba’s path to Green Bay was a long and complicated one, but he’s thankful for all the experiences. Today, he happily stands in front of schools to share his story. He’s seen the face of adversity. He even learned how to deal with his first significant injury last season.
What it’s taught him is life isn’t about dwelling on adversity — it’s about how you respond to it.
“It’s a blessing in disguise because we always complain about things in life, but we never really count our blessings,” Mulumba said. “You have to stay grounded, you have to stay humble. It’s not guaranteed and every year it’s continuous fight. You have to fight for a spot on the team, but at the same time we all have a different project on the side that we’re doing, too.
“Every opportunity I have I’ll take advantage of it. Unfortunately last year what happened, happened and you have to move past it. You just have to hit the restart button again and get it going.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.